20 Years of AOL Annoyances and Foul-Ups

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Crass Commercialism

Sharon Stone for AOL
In 2004, AOL launched a big new TV campaign. It was supposed to help revitalize the company's image, but instead the spots were roundly mocked. One commercial featured a teeming mob of irate customers showing up at company headquarters to demand new features--the idea being that AOL was listening to its subscribers, but the subscribers looked just plain angry (you almost wondered why they weren't brandishing pitchforks and torches)--and it resonated with real AOL users. Another commercial, featuring the AOL "running man" icon having apparently just concluded a tryst with Sharon Stone and the claim that AOL for broadband was "just a little sexier than you might have imagined," was unsettling on so many levels that I don't know where to start.

Can'tcelation Policy

Vincent Ferrari vs. AOL
In 2003, AOL reached a settlement with the FCC over charges that it intentionally made it difficult for unhappy customers to say goodbye. But three years later, it seemed still to be up to its old tricks: Vincent Ferrari called the company to cancel his account and was subjected to an extended dose of customer service as psychological torture--and unfortunately for AOL, he was recording the call. It turned out that AOL's "retention queue" handled 60,000 calls a day, and that employees were given an 81-page training manual on how to convince disgruntled subscribers that they didn't really want to leave.

All of which was not only appalling, but pointless. Within weeks of Ferrari's support call becoming public, the company was saying that its future lay in free Web services and that it would stop trying to sign up new subscribers and retain the ones it had.

Search Privacy? What's That?

It was supposed to be a dignified scholarly exercise: On August 4th, 2006, AOL made 20 million keyword searches available online for researchers to study. They contained no personally-identifiable information, so they were anonymous and harmless. Except that they weren't--you didn't have to be Sherlock Holmes to figure out who had done some of the searching, since folks' queries included information such as their own names, addresses, and Social Security numbers. Privacy experts were appalled. AOL yanked down the data and apologized, but the damage had been done. And as usual when the company ticked off its customers, it was the subject of revenge in the form of a class-action lawsuit.

Hometown Shutdown

AOL Hometown logo
Back in the 1990s when it looked like this World Wide Web thing just might amount to something, AOL gave its members tools for publishing their own sites, which it dubbed AOL Hometown. In 2008, it decided to discontinue the service--not in itself an outrage. But it gave members only a month's notice before deleting their sites and redirecting their URLs to a single blog post with a terse apology. Given that many of the sites hosted by Hometown dated to AOL's heyday, the act amounted to an abrupt razing of one of the Internet's few remaining historic districts.

Former PC World Editor-in-Chief Harry McCracken now blogs at Technologizer . He joined AOL in 1992--before he'd received a single disc in the mail--and canceled his account in 2006 .

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